The British Empire in the Gulf during the Second World War

Dr Mark Hobbs

Author

Gulf History Specialist, British Library
An overview of Bahrain Political Agency files dealing with the impact of the Second World War on the Gulf region.

In the Bahrain Political Agency An office of the British Government and, earlier, of the East India Company. Records of the India Office The department of the British Government to which the Government of India reported between 1858 and 1947. The successor to the Court of Directors. Records, there are nearly 150 confidential files dedicated to the Second World War, comprising 18,000 pages of content. These files were formerly organised under two subject headings: ‘File 28 Second World War’ (IOR/R/15/2/651-765) and ‘File 29 War: Food Supplies’ (IOR/R/15/2/766-794).

The files show that in spite of there being no military action around the shores of the Gulf throughout the War (save an audacious raid undertaken by three Italian bombers in October 1940) the region was significantly affected by the conflict. From the wide range of material covered, a number of key themes emerge.

1. The British Government’s efforts to defend its hegemony in the Gulf and protect its status as the region’s dominant imperial power

In response to the declaration of war in September 1939, the British Government introduced an emergency Order in Council A regulation issued by the sovereign of Great Britain on the advice of the Privy Council (in modern practice, upon the advice of government ministers). for the Gulf, which enabled British administrators to impose laws and legislation along the Arab coast of the Gulf as required.

Extract from an announcement of the Persian Gulf States (Emergency) Order in Council, dated 5 September 1939. IOR/R/15/2/726, ff. 94-95
Extract from an announcement of the Persian Gulf States (Emergency) Order in Council, dated 5 September 1939. IOR/R/15/2/726, ff. 94-95

The appointment at Bahrain of a Defence Officer, as well as the deployment of both a Special Police Force and a Defence Force, combined with the recruitment for National Service, helped to bridge the gap between political and military control. Further defence measures were taken to protect the islands against attack from the air.

More dramatic measures for maintaining British control in the Gulf followed. In May 1941, fearing Axis influences in the country, British forces invaded and reoccupied Iraq, restoring their ally ‘Abd al-Ilah to power. In August of the same year, British and Soviet forces invaded neutral Iran, forcing the abdication of the Shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi, and securing Iran’s oilfields for the Allies.

British guards patrolling the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery at Abadan, in the wake of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941. Source: Imperial War Museum (E 5329)
British guards patrolling the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery at Abadan, in the wake of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941. Source: Imperial War Museum (E 5329)

3. Shipping restrictions and food shortages in the Gulf

Restrictions on shipping led to a severe shortage of basic commodities such as tea, coffee, rice and grain in the Gulf region. Contraband controls, quotas, export licenses, rationing and price controls were introduced in an effort to prevent smuggling and black market profiteering.

Detail of blueprint diagram showing a proposed method of construction for brick sheathing of oil refinery tanks at the Bahrain Petroleum Refinery in Bahrain, 1932. IOR/R/15/2/661, f. 310
Detail of blueprint diagram showing a proposed method of construction for brick sheathing of oil refinery tanks at the Bahrain Petroleum Refinery in Bahrain, 1932. IOR/R/15/2/661, f. 310

4. The importance of – and risk to – petroleum production at Bahrain

Fears of sabotage and air raids against Bahrain’s petroleum facilities led to a comprehensive programme of defensive measures taken to protect oil production at Bahrain. This included the proposed destruction of oil wells and refining facilities, should they fall into enemy hands.

As the war dragged on, and with the loss of oil-producing possessions in British Burma, the importance of Bahrain’s oil increased. Production and exports rapidly grew in an effort to support the war effort.

Extract of a Foreign Office memorandum detailing Anglo-American relations in the Middle East, dated 29 April 1944. IOR/R/15/2/743, ff. 9-12
Extract of a Foreign Office memorandum detailing Anglo-American relations in the Middle East, dated 29 April 1944. IOR/R/15/2/743, ff. 9-12

5. The United States’ increased presence in the region, to the cost of Britain

The latter stages of the War bore witness to an increased US presence in Bahrain, Sharjah and Saudi Arabia. New Anglo-American policies for the region were agreed, exports of oil by US tankers increased, and the US military consolidated its bases in the region.